To What End Does America Have A Nuclear Policy?: Sixth Post in the Nuclear Policy Series

“The maximum possible deterrence may require a war winning capability, but much less force may nevertheless possess deterrent value. However, we must remember that the enemy has a very great incentive to ensure our destruction. That incentive must be countered in the only way possible, which is to guarantee strong retaliation. The automaticity of retaliation is taken too much for granted. Deterrence involves problems of choice among weapons, vehicles and also targets. Deterrent capabilities are also influenced considerably by the state of civil defense and of armaments limitation and control.”                                                                    Bernard Brodie,  Strategy in the Missile Age [1]

Cheryl Rofer of Whirledview recently proposed a “blog tank” on the question of American Nuclear Policy, a subject currently undergoing reexamination by the Bush administration under strong Congressional pressure to do so.  The answers have not come easily to the deep thinkers at the Department of Defense and the think tanks that inhabit the Beltway because, by and large, their strategic assumptions about how the world is supposed to work underwent profound shifts from 1991-2001. The ten year interregnum between the collapse of Communism and September 11 featured unprecedented economic globalization, information revolution and centrifugal decentralization that have rendered the massive Russian and American nuclear arsenals of the bipolar, Cold War, world not obsolete, but obscure.  What role do nuclear weapons serve in assuring America’s national security, vital interests or preservation of global peace and stability ? Against whom or what are these weapons to be directed?

It is important to note that American nuclear policy and warfighting doctrine during the Cold War were as much products of bureaucratic evolution within nation-states as they were of calm, theoretical, reflection by defense intellectuals or interstate diplomatic agreements like START, SALT, ABM and the NPT. Nagasaki was bombed almost on a political “automatic pilot” as a result of top secret decisions made during FDR’s tenure with the new president, Harry Truman being told that the city was a “military target” ( “Much like New York city was a military target” McGeorge Bundy was known to later quip). Even as Truman’s key adviser and later Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes (“Mr. Atomic Bomb”) was trying to use the bomb’s existence in a hamhanded way to maximize American diplomatic leverage, a privately worried Truman removed control of atomic bombs from the hands of the U.S. military and put them firmly under civilian and most importantly, presidential, authority. When General of the Army Douglas MacArthur insubordinately continued to agitate for the use of atomic bombs against Red China during the Korean War, Truman fired him. 

Dwight Eisenhower shared Truman’s misgivings about allowing an erosion of civilian authority over the military and he deliberately relied upon American dominance in atomic and hydrogen bombs and SAC to enunciate a doctrine of “massive retaliation” that helped keep Soviet armies contained while keeping the American Army small ( and cheap). The combination of increasing thermonuclear megatonnage, multiplying numbers of warheads and ICBM’s as an emerging delivery system resulted in a paradoxical situation of radical  “overkill” in America’s nuclear posture by 1960, an arsenal that could hardly be used in our defense without also threatening the existence of all life on earth. With “Massive Retaliation” having come to a dead end, from the Kennedy administration forward to the collapse of the USSR during the administration of George H.W. Bush, American presidents attempted to apply rational limitations to nuclear arms in conjunction with Soviet leaders and in partnership with key NATO allies. A retreat away from assured apocalypse and toward “selective options” and targeting enemy “command and control” and hopefully, human or even national survival.

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